After NBA players spent days discussing a potential protest of playoff games, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to not take the floor Wednesday for Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, prompting the NBA to postpone all three games scheduled that night.
Milwaukee is about 40 miles north of Kenosha, Wisconsin, the city where 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by police on Sunday. Blake was shot as he attempted to enter the driver’s side door of his vehicle with three of his children inside. Video of the shooting was distributed on social media.
Players across the NBA and the sports world quickly displayed support for the Bucks’ decision, including former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended for one game in 1996 when he refused to stand for the national anthem.
“This in my estimation is not only an intelligent but bold step forward, the kind of positions taken that, when sustained, can produce meaningful results,” Abdul-Rauf said in a statement to ESPN. “We have burnt police precincts and been arrested in protest. We have pleaded time and again with politicians, had meetings with sheriffs and chiefs of police, shed tears in disgust on national television for the world to see and drawn the attention of much of the world that was protesting with us over the unarmed, unjustified killing of Black people by murderers in police uniforms.
“Still, white supremacist racism is failing to hear our cries. So just maybe — just maybe — this new generation of human beings who happen to be athletes, and powerful ones at that, will do what our generation failed to do, and that is to stick together for something bigger than themselves. This is a sacrifice I’m hoping they will sustain.”
Multiple NBA players were hesitant to enter the Orlando, Florida, bubble for the restart of the 2019-20 season, expressing concern that a return to basketball would distract from the fight for racial justice. Those concerns grew louder following Blake’s shooting by police. Here’s how things progressed this week, in the words of NBA players and coaches.
Monday, Aug. 24
The Bucks won Game 4 over the Magic on Monday, but with protests erupting in Wisconsin, the players’ frustration was clear during their postgame media availability.
George Hill, Bucks guard: “It’s just sickening. It’s heartless. It’s a f—ed-up situation. … You’re supposed to look at the police to protect and serve. Now, it’s looked at harass or shoot. … But to almost take a man’s life, especially in front of one’s kids, that wasn’t resisting, in his back at point-blank range, is a heartless and gutless situation. We need some justice for that.”
Khris Middleton, Bucks guard: “This isn’t the first time this happened in my community. I’ve had two incidents in Charleston, South Carolina, with the shooting in the church and then the shooting of an unarmed Black man running away from the police a couple years ago. … We’re doing everything we can, but at the end of the day, it’s up to our lawmakers, it’s up to our police department to stop shooting us. It’s that simple.”
Hill: “We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest. I think coming [to the NBA bubble] took all the focal points off what the issues are. But we’re here, so it is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here, but I think definitely, when it’s all settled, some things have to be done. I think this world has to change. I think our police department has to change. Us as society has to change. And right now, we’re not seeing any of that. Lives are being taken, as we speak, day in and day out, and there’s no consequence or accountability for it, and that’s what has to change.”
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers forward: “Everyone has their opinion and reaction to what happened. … I still have a job to do because I’m here. Because I committed. And when I commit to something, I feel like I have to come through. That’s just who I am. But that does not mean that I don’t see what’s going on and I won’t say anything or continue to use my platform, continue to use my voice and continue to uplift all of the other athletes to let them know that they can say and do what’s right and not fear what other people’s opinions are. … I got half of my brain locked in on the playoffs and the other half locked in on how the hell I can help Black people become greater in America.”
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz guard, on Twitter: “F THE GAMES AND PLAYOFFS!!! THIS IS SICK AND IS A REAL PROBLEM WE DEMAND JUSTICE! ITS CRAZY I DONT HAVE ANY WORDS BUT WTF MAN! THIS IS WHY WE DONT FEEL SAFE!!!!”
Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder guard, in a postgame interview following a Game 4 win: I just want to send my prayers out to Jacob Blake and their family. The things that we decided to come down here and play for — and said we were going to speak on, the social injustices — they are things that continue to happen, you know, to our people. It’s not right.”
Anthony Davis, Lakers forward: “Our main focus is on social justice, and we are lucky to have a ton of guys who are public figures like Bron, [Chris Paul], all these guys who are always on the forefront and speaking out and able to kind of guide the younger guys and stand up in the right direction and kind of follow their lead. We are fortunate as an organization to have one on our team who loves to go out there and put his foot forward, and we kind of just follow his footsteps and kind of make sure we’re doing the right things as well.”
James: “I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. … If you’re sitting here and telling me that there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him or just — before the firing of guns — then you’re sitting here and lying to not only me, but you’re lying to every African American, every Black person in the community. Because we see it over and over and over.”
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers guard: “What we’re fighting for, what we’re preaching, what we’re trying to change, it has not been changed yet. Wins and losses is tough, getting swept is tough, but at the end of the day, nobody’s dead. People are dying. This is not OK. We have to keep doing our part until change really comes.”
Tuesday, Aug. 25
The Toronto Raptors held a team meeting before practice to discuss how they could respond to Blake’s shooting by police, including potentially not playing against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series scheduled for Thursday. Players and coaches continued to discuss the challenges in the bubble throughout the day.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors guard: “We knew coming here or not coming here was not going to stop anything, but I think ultimately playing or not playing puts pressure on somebody. So, for example, this happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, if I’m correct? Would it be nice if, in a perfect world, we all say we’re not playing, and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks — that’s going to trickle down if he steps up to the plate and puts pressure on the district attorney’s office and state’s attorney and governors and politicians there to make real change and get some justice.
“I know it’s not that simple. But at the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, then at some point, we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. I’m just over the media aspect of it. It’s sensationalized. We talk about it every day. That’s all we see, but it just feels like a big pacifier to me.”
Raptors players Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell explain why spreading awareness on racial injustice isn’t enough to make change following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Marcus Smart, Celtics guard: “We tried to be peaceful, kneeling, we tried to protest. And for us, we tried to come out here and get together and play this game and try to get our voice across. But it’s not working, so obviously something has to be done. … Right now, our focus shouldn’t really be on basketball. I understand it’s the playoffs and everything like that, but we still have a bigger underlying issue that’s going on, and the things that we’ve tried haven’t been working. So we definitely need to take a different approach, and we definitely need to try new things out to get this thing working the way that we know it should and get our voices heard even more.”
Jaylen Brown, Celtics guard: “It was hard enough even coming down here, to be honest. But I guess [protesting is] something you talk about with your team, for sure. We haven’t talked about that as the Celtics. But those emotions are real. That is real. Yes, we’re athletes. Yes, we’re being paid to play a sport that we love. But we are human beings, members of our community. We are fathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, etc. So all those emotions are real, and I don’t really have a lot to say.
“It’s definitely hard to digest or to process how you feel about it. Everything on me was on fire yesterday, waking up to it. To see people changing the framing of what he did in the past, in terms of, ‘Well, he was a convicted felon,’ or, ‘Well, he had a history of resisting arrest or possibly had a weapon.’ That is not [an] unfamiliar framework in this country. We’ve seen that time and time again. That does not constitute or justify the fact that you are shooting someone seven times in the back or killing them — at all. Anybody who thinks differently is no friend of mine.”
VanVleet: “We’re dealing with it in real time, and I think it affects everybody differently. It’s pretty fresh on my mind, and I’m sitting in front of a camera, so I’m just speaking as I’m going. But yeah, there’s a lot of different things that we’ve discussed … At some point, like, we’re the ones always with the microphones in our face. We’re the ones always who have to make a stand. But, like, we’re the oppressed ones, and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed, you know what I’m saying? That’s what it boils down to.
“Like, at what point do we not have to speak about it anymore? Are we gonna hold everybody accountable, or we’re just gonna put the spotlight on Black people or Black athletes or entertainers and say, ‘What are you doing? What are you contributing to your community? What are you putting on the line?’ … And then us, too, we’ve gotta take responsibility as well. Like, what are we willing to give us? Do we actually give a f— about what’s going on, or is it just cool to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the backdrop or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”
Doc Rivers, LA Clippers coach: “All you hear [at the Republican National Convention] is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear … It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better.”
Mitchell: “A lot of times where we say we don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter how much money, it doesn’t matter who you are. The common excuse is, ‘He shouldn’t have walked away. He shouldn’t have not listened to the cops.’ He doesn’t deserve to be shot in the back, shot seven times. That’s inexcusable. The point of us coming down here was to create change, and I feel that we’re doing a good job of that but not good enough. It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, but it’s disgusting.”
Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets coach: “I’ll be honest, I don’t think there is anything that we can do here that is going to stop what is happening across this country, with the latest example being Kenosha. … By being here, we are isolated, and we can’t help where maybe we need to help. It is frustrating for a lot of players, a lot of coaches, to be here. … But I don’t think anybody thought by coming down to the bubble and wearing a T-shirt and talking and painting something on court was going to end things across this country. This has been happening for hundreds of years.”
Paul George, Clippers forward: “It’s sad. Another one. This is America. Unless people decide to do the right thing. This is America. We got to stand by all. We need our allies to stand with us. This is what’s going on. This is what’s happening. It’s still happening, even after what happened with George Floyd. It’s within them. There’s some coward cops out there. It’s the system. We got to change it … I ask all my brothers and sisters out there to continue this fight while we’re in here. We’ll continue the fight while we’re in here. Everybody has to join together.”
Lou Williams, Clippers guard: “It’s unfortunate we’re in this bubble, and we’re still dealing with these issues. … We’re still seeing unarmed Black men get shot in the streets. It’s just ridiculous at this point. And I think it’s difficult being here when things like that are happening. You kind of feel helpless in a way. You can use your voice in a way, but I think our presence is much more felt.
“To all our brothers out there in the streets that’s gonna protest these things, that’s gonna fight for legislation for prison reform and those things, I think that’s very important. It’s just sad. Outside of our jerseys, we’re Black men, and so it’s scary for an encounter with police officers right now. It’s unfortunate. That’s all I gotta say tonight.”
Wednesday, Aug. 26
Players from the Celtics and Raptors held a players-only meeting Tuesday night to discuss the possibility of not playing Game 1 of their second-round series. Before the postponement of Wednesday’s games, players and coaches from both teams spoke about the meeting.
Nick Nurse, Raptors coach: “The players are deeply disappointed that the same thing happens again in a relatively short time frame. They want to be part of the solution. They want to help. They want justice. They want this particular problem to be handled in a much better way. That’s the first thing. … Boycotting the game has come up for them as a way to try to demand a little more action. That’s really what they want. I think there’s enough attention and not quite enough action, and that’s what I can sense from the discussions is their disappointment. Like, ‘Man, how can we get something to change, like now?’ We need something to change, not just attention on the problem. We need a plan of action.”
Grant Williams, Celtics forward: “Really, all we can hope and try to do is impact change. That’s something that we have always strived for, and we started with the kneeling. We were hoping that would send a message, and it sent a message, but then as that message gets pushed out, then they stopped showing us.”
Jayson Tatum, Celtics forward: “The first incident that happened a couple of months ago, guys were able to be on the front lines, be seen, be in their communities and their neighborhoods. Right now, it’s tough because we’re kind of stuck between the decision of some people can go home, but we understand what we’re giving up by being here. The work that so many people, so many hours went into making this all possible. So it’s a tough decision.
“I know some guys have thought about going home. A lot of things are bigger than basketball, and we understand that. We’re people, first and foremost. We’re not just basketball players. So the feeling of being isolated from the outside world, that’s kind of how I feel right now. I know a lot of other guys feel the same way.”
Brad Stevens, Celtics coach: “It’s not about me, obviously. It’s about these guys [who] are people first. They care deeply about the communities that they grew up in, the communities they live in, and everything that’s going on affects them emotionally and us emotionally just like everyone else. I think that’s something that sometimes when you turn on the TV you forget. I think that certainly they’re amazing. And we are in coaching as much as anything to just be a part of a team and to be around people and to share those moments that only a team can share in those rooms.”
Williams: “Now it’s more so about what can we do next to not only show that we’re not only involved but also show that we really care and that it saddens us to see nothing’s changing? And there’s something that has to happen. And that’s part of the discussions and creative ways of how we can create change and how we can not only be there for those who are experiencing tough trials, like the Blake family right now, and not only support them, but also show their stories, send their message out to the communities that show how this world is and how we can hopefully get better and improve as a society – not one by one but hopefully as a whole.”
Tatum: “[Protesting games is] an active discussion. Obviously, it started with the Raptors, and obviously that’s who we’re playing. It’s been talked about with other guys on other teams. People are upset or angry, and we’re just trying to come together and figure out a way how we can do something. … Obviously people are going to say, ‘Well, what is sitting out going to do?’ Obviously, if we sit out a game or the rest of the playoffs, we understand how big of an impact that will have. Everybody’s going to have to talk about it, continue to raise awareness. We don’t want to just keep playing and forget about what’s going on in the outside world because it’s affecting us. It’s affecting everybody.
“We’re more than just basketball players. We’re people. And we have these raw emotions and feelings.”
“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.
“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.
“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on Nov. 3.”